Why the Internet Makes It Hard to Procrastinate

Technology allows us a "read later" mentality. We don't seem to want it.

Technology allows us a "read later" mentality. We don't seem to want it. 

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This morning, the save-for-later service Pocket (formerly Read It Later) posted some highlights from a year's worth of user data. Among the stats: Users -- who now number at 7.4 million -- saved 240 million pieces of digital content over the year (compared to 170 million in the span between the service's launch in 2007 and 2011). And they save that content at a rate of 10.4 items per second.

Perhaps you are one of those users, and perhaps your mouse is hovering over a save-for-later button right at this moment. Before you click it, though, let me just say one thing: Those numbers are remarkable. And not just because they suggest the growth of the save-for-later mentality, but also because that mentality also has the potential to shift, just a little bit, the way we relate to all the stuff -- the videos, the essays, the listicles, the treatises, the cats -- that crosses our paths every day online. A defining psychic feature of the Internet is its immediacy, its urgency, its implicit demands on our time. Hereisthisthingyoushouldseerightnow. Alsothatthingisacatvideo.

That one feature, Internet as scheduler, shapes the web as a social space. Because the same tendency that makes 20 minutes a long time to take to reply to an email, and two minutes a long time to reply to a tweet, also means that, generally, the content that lives on it has an extraordinarily short shelf life. And that's true not just of "content" as in news stories, the stuff that loses most of its value when the term "new" no longer applies to it. It's also true of content as a more general category: long stories, deeply reported narratives, richly researched essays -- stuff that aims to endure. The stock of the Internet.

Services like Pocket have the potential (maaaaybe) to adjust that calculus: If they reach critical mass, that could mean a shift in the Internet not just as an environment, but as a social expectation. It could mean a slight change in the way we relate, temporally, to all the stuff that it holds. If we no longer assume, by default, that day-old is old -- if we no longer expect that the window for discussion of a story closes after 12 or 24 or 48 hours -- then we might stop feeling the pressure to relate to the Internet in a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of way. Procrastination could be written, productively, into our relationship with the web -- and with each other as participants in it.

But: could, could, could. Because one of the most telling pieces of data from Pocket's year-of-saves illustrates how deeply ingrained the Internet's hereness and nowness is in our own habits of consumption. The most popular text story saved to the service this year was "Obama's Way," Michael Lewis's long, deeply reported/richly researched piece for Vanity Fair. It's a fantastic article -- the type of classic magazine piece that's written with an eye toward history. Here, per Pocket, is the open rate for "Obama's Way" -- the rate at which people returned to the saved article, ostensibly to actually read it:

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This is a classic Pareto distribution: "Obama's Way," in the space of a few days, goes from hugely popular to way less popular -- and to, in the space of a month, basically flatlining. As Pocket notes, it reached peak popularity one day after publication. Though 80 percent of all the opens of the Lewis article took place after the first four days of being saved, those returns tricked out over the course of many months. Attention, as a social force, was concentrated with a small window of time.

Of course, you don't want to over-interpret these stats. That long-tail distribution is, first of all, totally natural: you'd expect some kind of curve along these lines for any piece of content -- that's just how attention works. And the extremity of the curve could also have several explanations: The Lewis article was exceptionally buzzy, so Pocket users might have felt more motivated than they normally would have to read it quickly, to talk about it while it's being talked about. There's also the possibility, suggested by the similar rates of saves and opens, that some people use Pocket less as a save-for-later service and more as a simple bookmarking service -- so a click on a save-for-later button might signal an intent not to "read later," but rather simply to read, full stop. And there's the further possibility that those returning to "Obama's Way" returned without actually reading the article. The Pocket info tells us a lot about intention; it tells us much less about action.

Still, though, the curve is revealing -- not just of our reading habits, but of the way we think about time on the Internet. And of the way, in some sense, that time thinks about us. "Obama's Way" is a doozy of a piece of journalism, clocking in at more than 14,000 words. It is dense. It is languorous. It is not joking around. And yet: Even on a service whose whole point is delayed gratification, the concentration was on non-delayed reading. People seemed to feel pressure -- personally or socially, which are often the same thing -- to read Lewis's article quickly, ifnotnowthenreallyreallysoon.

It's worth considering why they seemed to feel that. And it's worth wondering why even the longest of long-form articles -- a story that was basically a year in the making -- ended up, as a product, with such a short shelf life. One answer is that "Obama's Way" itself was, in various ways, an anomaly. Another answer is that, in a bustling journalistic marketplace, pretty much everything has a short shelf life. But there's another answer, too, one that has less to do with Michael Lewis or Barack Obama or a save-for-later service named Pocket and more to do with the Internet as a system: The web as we've built it has its own its own circadian rhythms, its own sense of the pace of life. We define those rhythms, to be sure, but they also define us. And as the social web becomes ever more social, the Internet's pace will likely quicken: Our schedules will be moderated less by magazine publication schedules and TV air times and workday expectations and more by what our closest associates are up to. Our attention -- when it comes to content consumption, but when it comes to many other things, as well -- will be even more malleable than it is now. The more of our lives we live on the Internet, the more we'll rely on its schedules and its cycles for our own -- and the more we'll adhere to its particular sense of time.